"So, all together the situation is stabile", Thanael reported. "You should consider sending grain seeds to the northern border though, so they could still have a harvest. Otherwise they have to make it through the winter on fish alone."
Ardaigh made a note of that. Garrett looked at the big map, frowning. "What is about Koldar?", he asked suspiciously. "Have you been there to look after King Cold? I don't want him to march back here on a moment's notice..."
"When I'd sailed there, they had just arrived", Thanael told. "Took them much longer because they had to take the land route, and the king is concerned about Lucilla's wellfare. I've seen him shoo around his servants to make the old castle a habitable place again in time before the child is born – he seems just fine."
Ardaigh allowed herself a hopeful smile. The idea that Tiberius would now take care of his family and not care about her anymore was somewhat uplifting.
"Also", Thanael added, "I should inform Your Majesty that three guests are arriving at court on horseback, quite right now."
Garrett looked confused. "Right now? How did you come to calculate this?"
"I looked out of the window", Thanael replied dryly and pointed to the courtyard. He glanced outside again to assess the arriving guests. "A man and two women..." With that, he interrupted. His mumble was barely understandable. "It's Iris."
Before Ardaigh could inquire any more, Thanael smiled brightly at her and announced: "Pardon me, my queen, I take the rest of the day off." And with that, he was out the door.
"Hey!", Garrett protested, but in vain. With an exasperated sigh, he stepped to the window next to Ari. "He has the attention span of an oatcake."
"Might have a good reason, though", Ari answered, looking down into the courtyard.
Iris dismounted her horse. She was tired, so tired. She could barely stand anymore, not to talk of thinking. Only the information that Thanael was here had brought her and her siblings here instead of to Callidora Manor.
Zane went off his horse as well, but he didn't come closer. Instead he stood a bit off, looking lost and somewhat ashamed. Jezzebelle however came over to her, laid a hand on her shoulder and smiled. "Come on, skip that face and start smiling", she said. "After all, he is smiling, too." With that, she pointed to the stairs. To the man hurrying down there.
And before Iris could say a word to him, he embraced her, cheering her name. "Iris! Iris, you came back!"
Iris clinched her arms around him. She could practically see Zane rolling his eyes, and she heard Jez giggling. But that didn't matter at all. The hard journey, the troubles, the fights – she didn't mind at all. Everything that mattered was Thanael. He was warm and clean and dressed properly, and he was not so terribly skinny and pale anymore, and he didn't smell like dungeons but like... home.
"I missed you so", he said quietly. Iris would have answered, but right now, she had no strength to say anything. She just wanted to hold him and be held by him, until the world went by.
Thanael didn't ask her any questions besides "How do you feel?" He didn't ask her to do anything, to explain anything. He just brought her to the house he had been given by Ardaigh, got her a meal and a nightgown and brought her to bed.
It had been a while since she'd slept in a bed, and much longer since she'd slept well, Iris thought when Thanael tugged her into her blanket like a child. It was not even dark yet, but she was so tired, she just wanted to sleep...
"Thanael?" He looked at her. The last time she'd seen him, he had been sliding into and out of madness, had been in rage, in desperation, in resignation. Now he seemed so calm. She wanted to ask so many questions. How had he come to reach this position? He, on the other hand, had not asked a thing. Just how she felt. "We have not talked yet", she said.
Thanael took her hand. "Do you want to talk?"
For some reason, this very sentence made something inside her crack, and she began to cry. "No."
"Do you want to be left alone?", he asked.
Iris shook her head, sobbing. "No."
Thanael laid behind her, pulling her into his arms. She cried for a while yet, but finally, her exhaustion overwhelmed her and she fell asleep.
A few days passed. Thanael was often out to do his job for Lacriel or Ardaigh, but in the evenings, he would always be back. Over time, Iris came to get used to it. She didn't know where he was over the day, and he still did a dangerous work as a spy, but it was not like it had been in the war, all the time wondering if he was even alive yet. The rest of the time he'd spend with her, and they were talking a lot, or sometimes just silencing together.
Jez sometimes came to visit her, but since she could shadowwalk, Iris was not worried when her sister was not around. And as Zane told her he would return to Callidora Manor, Iris decided to not accompany him. "I want to be with Thanael right now", she simply said, and Zane said nothing back on that.
Thanael told her about his way out the prison and into Rosellian citizenship, he told about his sisters, about the rebuilding of the countries. They often walked hand in hand trough the landscape, or she laid in his arms in the evenings and he read something to her.
One morning, when she woke up and Thanael had already rode out to contact a spy recruit on the border of Old Koldar, she found her violin waiting on the table for her. Her fingers wandered the smooth wood. She had not been playing music for a long, long time... in a moment's notice, she took the violin up and began tuning the strings.
Then she played, one song after another, songs of lost love and returning love, of sadness and of beauty, of long, melancholic winters and the first singing of birds in spring. She had not known there were so many feelings, so many songs inside her. Why had she wrapped herself into silence so long?
When her arms got numb, she finally stopped. Putting the violin aside, Iris wondered how it even got here; she'd had it stored in the Callidora home... In the evening, when Thanael came home, she asked him. He just shrugged. "I thought you might like something to cheer you up, so I asked Jez to get it here for you."
Iris smiled. "You and Jezzebelle get along quite well."
"I like her, she is... tough. She never lets anything bring her down." Thanael laughed. "She'd probably bring everything else down before that, and I admit, she's quite a firework. But I like her."
Iris was still asking herself how he managed to do it. How he managed to smile, to laugh, to put away all the sorrow. But it was that very same night she came to realize that the war and the time in prison had affected Thanael just as well.
She wasn't sure what it was that woke her up – maybe it was colder, because he didn't lay next to her as he usually did. "Thanael?" No reaction. He was not in the room.
Iris got up, wrapped herself in a robe and went down the stairs. The entire house was dark, no one to see. Why would Thanael just leave in the middle of the night?
Then she heard a noise from the backside of the house. She went out the backdoor and, in the first moment, she was relieved: There was Thanael, not far off.
Only, why was he in te garden? Barefoot and with no jacket on, in the deep night, to do... what? He was working on something... as she approached him, Iris realized he was digging a pit into the ground. He didn't look up as she came closer, just worked on.
"Thanael?", she asked. "What are you doing?"
He still didn't turn around to her. One shovel of dirt followed the other. Thanael mumbled: "Burying..."
A cold shiver ran down Iris' spine. "Burying whom?"
He didn't answer, but stopped for a moment. He looked at her, or rather: through her. His eyes were empty. And then he just digged on.
"Thanael", Iris spoke to him softly as she realized what was going on, "are you even awake?"
When he didn't react, Iris took his hand, holding him from continuing his work. She pulled him towards her and touched his cheek. "Wake up." She used her commanding voice, just a tiny little bit, but it was just enough to snap Thanael out of his sleepwalking.
He seemed bewildered when he recognized her. "Iris..." Thanael looked around. At the hole in the ground, the shovel, the dirt at his hands and feet. "What's going on? Why are we on the outside?"
"Don't worry. You were just having a dream... a nightmare, maybe." When she tugged his hand, he followed her back inside, hesitating.
He still looked confused as they went back to bed. "Pardon me. I was just..." Thanael shrugged helplessly, not really knowing how to end the sentence. His head had kept a vague impression of the fields of dead, of the bodies to be buried. "You were not there."
Iris just put her arms around him. "It's alright. I'm right here, I won't leave again. The war is over. You can sleep now."
The next morning, he was already up earlier than her, but this time, Iris didn't have to look for him long. He was down in the kitchen – she could hear him cussing. When she was dressed and went down, a sharp smell irritated her nose.
Downstairs, Thanael just opened the window and threw something out. Something black and smoking.
"Good morning. Now what was that going to be?", Iris asked.
Thanael looked at her quite glum. "Good morning. Actually, it should have been your breakfast."
Iris began to grin. "You made breakfast for me?"
"At least I intended to do so..." Thanael shoved a jugful of water into the chimney, causing the fire to got out sizzling. He knelt down and began picking formless black chunks from the ashes. "Kalei just recently told me that not all people are into raw meat, so I tried something", he told casually. "Did you realize that, when people speak about burnt bread, they can mean that the doug literally caught fire? I didn't know it could. I find this utterly fascinating!"
Iris believed him. And the very fact that Thanael just had no idea about cooking and this sort of things, enough to be utterly fascinated by burnt bread, was outright hilarious. She bursted out laughing, and soon she laughed so hard she could barely breath anymore.
As she dropped onto a chair, gasping for air, Thanael cleaned his ash-dusted hands with a towel and came over to her. "Hey, I haven't seen that in a while. Didn't know you still could do that", he said happily.
"What now?", Iris wondered, still giggling.
"Laugh your heart out. You are so beautiful." He took her hand and pulled her up. "Now, let's skip the breakfast. I want to show you something."
She followed him to the gardens, passing the pit he'd been digging. Thanael didn't pay any attention to it, but instead dragged her to the fence where, close to some raspberry shrubs, a purple flower was blooming. Iris had been in the garden one or two times, but she hadn't noticed that particular flower, a large orchid that was white and golden speckled in the middle.
Thanael carefully digged it out with all roots. The way the ground around it looked, it had been planted here not long ago. He handed it over to her. "I've asked Queen Ardaigh for help with this. She said it would be just right for you."
"It's lovely, Thanael", Iris said and absolutely meant it. The flower was magnificent. She took Thanael's hand, trying to make him get up from the floor, but he kept kneeling and took her other hand as well. She blinked as she noticed he cleaned his throat and tried to put on a solemn tone.
"Iris... listen, I know we've had it rough. I know when I gave you the ring... and when I promised in prison... I know we didn't expect to actually have a chance together. But now that I have a life ahead of me, I want to spend this life with you. And I don't want it to be a secret. Will you marry me? Officially? Stand out there in front of them all and tell them that the two of us belong together?"
Why was he so nervous, for heaven's sake? Did he ever doubt for a second that she would? "Yes." A smile made her eyes gleam. "I'll scream it out into the world. I love you, and I will marry you."
A heartbeat later, Thanael had her in his arms and kissed her, once, twice, a dozen times. Iris laughed and shoved him off. "Oh, dear. My brother is going to kill us both."
"At least we can have a grand old party before, and you can wear a drop-dead gorgeous dress and someone else than me will take care of the food..."
"Thank the gods for that!", Iris giggled and kissed him again.